Study Guide

Homeless Bird Tradition and Customs

By Gloria Whelan

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Tradition and Customs

She dusted my face with golden turmeric powder, and with a paste of sandalwood and vermilion painted the red tikka mark on my forehead. My eyes were outlined with kohl. My lips and cheeks were rouged. The kautuka, a yellow woolen bridal thread, was fastened around my wrist. I put on my choli and my petticoat. (1.60)

On her wedding day, Koly gets all dolled up for the ceremony, and we get to see some of the Indian traditions in the story. The vivid details about her make-up and clothes allow us to picture her as if she were standing right in front of us. And boy, is she colorful.

"I have only to touch you and I will share in your darshan, your sight of the holy Ganges. That is all I ask." (3.2)

We talk about the Ganges as a magical power over in "Symbols," but we feel it's worth mentioning here, too. Chandra expresses the traditional belief about the Ganges containing magical healing powers which can make a sick person well again. This is part of the Hindu tradition, and the Mehtas believe every word of it.

"Chandra, how can you tell if you will love him?" I asked. "You have never seen him." Though he was dead and I knew I should not think badly of him, I remembered how disappointed I had been in Hari (5.3).

The fact that Chandra is unfazed by her arranged marriage spooks Koly out a little bit. Isn't Chandra worried she won't like her new hubby that she's never even met? Chandra's response is rooted in the customs of the day, though. Everyone has an arranged marriage, so no one finds this weird or frightening. Well, no one except Koly, that is.

"It is not proper," she said. "Only those women who are not widowed and have borne a male child are privileged to help." (5.31)

Getting Chandra ready for her wedding day is a big deal and steeped in tradition. In fact, Koly isn't even allowed to be a part of it because she's a widow without children. She's bummed, especially because Chandra is her friend and she wants to be included.

The ceremony was soon over, and the feasting began. A tali was brought out piled with boiled ducks' eggs, crisply fried pooris, dal, rice, curries, chapatis, mango chutney, and many kinds of sweets. The food was served first to the men and then to the women guests, and last I ate with the women who had been hired to help with the cooking and serving. (5.36)

Chandra's wedding could not be more different from Koly's since everyone is excited to be there. One thing that's the same at both, though, is how traditional the feast is. At each wedding the men and women are separated and eat at different times.

We had to drop the small stones, one by one. It is known that a spirit is poor at counting but loves to count anyhow. Sassur's spirit would occupy itself with counting the pebbles and would not follow us home. (7.4)

Mr. Mehta's funeral harps on some customs that Koly doesn't understand. She bets returning home is the last thing Mr. Mehta would want to do since he was so depressed there. Still, though, she carries out the traditions, because, well, that's what she's supposed to do.

I went to the Banke Bihari, where there was a darshan each day—the curtains were opened for a moment to give a glimpse of the deity, which is a great blessing. (8.22)

In the widows' city, Koly gets her first glimpse of a deity inside the temple and thinks about how it's a blessing. The only problem? She doesn't feel blessed since she's been ditched by sass. Seems reasonable. Then again, her life takes a positive turn after this, so maybe traditions aren't as useless as she thinks.

"Not traditional. We must have marigolds." (9.16)

Koly's boss says this about the flowers for the wedding garland. Interestingly, though, when the girls intersperse jasmine and marigolds, the guests love it. In this instance, tradition is deviated from to people's ultimate delight.

Mr. Das's workroom became the most important place in my life. I couldn't believe that someone was paying me for doing what I loved best. (9.38)

Here we see how Koly goes against tradition by working outside of the home and enjoying every minute of it. Once Koly stops worrying about what she's supposed to do, she can be herself.

"They wouldn't want you to marry a widow; such a marriage is inauspicious. And you own land. You would have no trouble finding a wife who would bring you a dowry." (11.14)

When Raji proposes, Koly is floored because she's a widow, and no man wants a widow in her society. Even though she's more independent than ever before, she still finds herself thinking about traditional ways when it comes to marriage. Not for too long, though—Koly gets right back to doing her own thing and decides to marry Raji.

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